Duchy of Polotsk – History and Interesting Facts
The main sources of history for the old cities and duchies that existed on Belarusian territory are the annals and chronicles which have been preserved up to the present day. These include the Nestor Chronicle, the Hypatian Codex, the Bychowiec Chronicle and others. These chronicles make reference to and describe the 35 largest East Slavonic towns that existed in the early Middle Ages.
Most European and East Slavonic duchies came into being between the 9th and 10th centuries. In the middle of the 9th century two wide-ranging alliances were founded in Eastern Europe. One to the north in Veliky Novgorod in present-day Russia and one to the south in Kiev in present-day Ukraine. Between the two lay Polotsk (Belarusian: Polazk). The town was mentioned for the first time in 862. It is therefore the oldest town in Belarus, which has earned it the name of ‘mother of all Belarusian towns’. Polotsk was often at the centre of armed conflicts between Novgorod and Kiev and was an additional force to be reckoned with. The Duchy of Polotsk was the first stable governing system to emerge on Belarusian soil. In all probability, Polotsk belonged to the Duchy of Novgorod until the middle of the 9th century. As a result of the conquests made by the Kiev princes Dir and Askold, the Duchy of Polotsk was ceded to Kiev in 960. Historical reality in the 10th century indicates that independence was mainly a matter of power and had little influence on the administrative structure of the duchy.
Its proximity to the rivers Dnieper and Dvina was beneficial for the Duchy of Polotsk. The two rivers were part of the main trading route from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea and there was lively trade between the Slavonic tribes and the duchies. Polotsk was therefore located directly on the spot where the Varangians from Scandinavia converged on the Byzantine Empire.
The first officially recorded duke of the Duchy of Polotsk was Rogvolod (end of the 10th century). He supposedly came from “across the sea”, but from exactly where is not known. Be that as it may, Rogvolod was a resolute ruler. Under his influence the borders of the duchy were fortified and the administrative and political systems improved.
While the tribal princes of Polotsk were extending the settlements on their territory, they also built a fortress on the right bank of the River Palata, which gave the town its name. Polotsk gradually subordinated the neighbouring areas and imposed the payment of tributes on them. In this way, the duchy started to develop. However, expansion led to inevitable conflicts and confrontation with neighbouring dukes such as those in Turov, Pskov and Smolensk who were also striving for dominance in the area.
The political and social structure of Polotsk was very similar to that of Kiev and Novgorod. Whilst a stable ruling system was being established in Polotsk, town architecture was able to develop. The St. Sophia Cathedral was built in the middle of the 11th century and was one of the first Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe. The mighty sacred building was primarily a symbol of the power of the dukes.
After the duke’s death his descendants inherited the duchy according to the gavelkind system (historical term used when each inheritor receives equal shares of an estate). Therefore the area was gradually split up.
The most powerful Duke of Polotsk was Vseslav of Polotsk, who was often called the “magician”, because the people thought of him as a werewolf. Polotsk experienced its best years during his 57 year reign. After the duke died in 1101, the duchy was divided even further. The duke’s sons began fighting against each other, which contributed still further to the decline.
One person who made a particular mark on the duchy in the 12th century was Euphrosyne of Polotsk, one of Vseslav’s granddaughters. Although a duchess, she decided to spend her life in a convent. In the scriptorium of St. Sophia’s Cathedral she wrote books, and also pursued an active peace and religious policy. She founded two convents with libraries and a scriptorium. The convents were considered to be centres of enlightenment in the Duchy of Polotsk.
Towards the end of the 12th century social life in Polotsk underwent a major change. While the Dukes of Polotsk were busy conquering new territory and integrating it into the duchy, a completely new form of people’s assembly – the veche – was developing in the town. The veche was a people’s assembly which tried to solve the most important issues and problems facing the town by open vote. The veche frequently restricted the power of the dukes in the 12th century, especially in the larger towns. It was the first body to implement a kind of self-administration.
The veche played an important role in Polotsk. For example, it could elect a new duke, although he had to be a member of the local ducal dynasty. In the history of Polotsk, there is one instance of the veche ousting the last Duke, Rogvolod Borisovich, in the year 1151, and appointing Duke Rostislav from Minsk. The veche in Polotsk was particularly well developed and continued functioning until the end of the 15th century, when Polotsk was granted the Magdeburg Rights.
The Polotsk veche was also involved in matters of war and peace and was in a position to conclude a peace treaty for example. It also deliberated on administrative and court issues, but without taking a direct decision. This was still the prerogative of the Duke. The Duke had an entourage (Russian: druschina) of advisers and carried out the administration and passed sentence in court with their aid. Taxes, levies and tributes were payable to the Duke. The civil and military administration of a Duchy was a relatively complicated affair. The overriding power was in the hands of the Duke, who divided the towns and their surrounding settlements among his sons and officials. They managed the towns at their own discretion.
In the year 1161, the Vitebsk Vasilkovich dynasty came to power in the duchy, the first prince being Vseslav Vasilkovich. At this time princes from the region of Smolensk (now Russia) began advancing on Polotsk territory. They were repulsed with help from the towns of Vitebsk, Logozhsk (now Lahoysk or Logoisk) and Izyaslav in 1180.
The “opoltschenije” (Russian for a kind of militia stemming from the local population) rallied to defend their town, under the command of a chiliarch or tysiatsky (Russian for the leader of a military group). The duke’s representatives were called “wirnik” and “tiwun” and they were the epitome of judicial power as far as the citizens of the town were concerned. The duke nominated his aides and representatives himself. There were also church courts which were responsible for infringements of church rituals or for matters of family law. The church was also in charge of education.
The duke’s troops were mainly boyars and mercenaries. Boyars were members of the aristocracy ranking lower than the duke and constituted the ruling class of large estate holders. They acquired increasing political influence, which they used to their own advantage.
At the beginning of the 13th century, a new threat to the Duchy of Polotsk developed in the shape of the Teutonic Order. In the year 1201, with the permission of Duke Vladimir, German missionaries and crusaders founded the town of Riga at the delta of the Dvina. The Teutonic Order spread further from Riga into East Slavonic territory. This was the beginning of the end of the sovereignty of the Duchy of Polotsk. Duke Bryachislav of Polotsk asked for help from Alexander Nevsky and Lithuanian dukes, who defended Polotsk with varying success.
In 1307, the Duchy of Polotsk was annexed to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At the time, Polotsk was the largest town in the Grand Duchy and received special rights and privileges. However, it ultimately had to surrender these to the Grand Duchy in the year 1383, which saw the start of a new period in the history of the country.